Thanks to St Luke’s, I attended the Working With Difficult People course run by Sally-Anne Bubbers and Jane Tillier in Lichfield Diocese. The title immediately grabbed me – who hasn’t had the experience of working with difficult people at some point in their ministry or work, or even amongst family and friends, lovely though they are? And who wouldn’t love to know the answers and how to get it right!
The two-day course is split, with the second day held roughly four weeks after the first so that learning can be reflected on and applied before the follow-up day. This worked really well and it was interesting to hear how we had each taken hold of different elements of the course’s input and worked with it in the interim. There were 12 of us attending, lay and ordained, and this made for a good mix of people and perspectives.
It’s not you, it’s me
Jane and Sally-Anne are both excellent facilitators and teachers and were adept at creating a welcoming, safe and fun learning environment. Safety was an important feature for us as a learning group, given that the nature of the material we were presented with was likely to engage us at a very personal level. You might think that going on a course to learn about how to work with difficult people would be all about ‘them’, the ‘difficult other’, but crucially, what Jane and Sally-Anne so carefully and engagingly achieve is turning the mirror round to ourselves. This means that first I learn to understand how I tick, what makes me a difficult person, so that I can then see what might be going on in and for the other person, that results in their ‘difficult’ behaviour.
Theory made plain
Jane and Sally-Anne presented us with several different models for understanding ourselves and others, which helped us to understand ‘blueprints for relational dynamics’. These included: attachment theory and how we learn ‘good enough’ ways of relating from childhood; transactional analysis; the ‘drama triangle’; the ‘OK Corral – I’m OK, You’re OK’; internal family systems theory, and character strategies as developed by Kurtz and Ogden, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute.
There was a considerable amount of material presented and much to take in that felt slightly overwhelming at times, especially when it began to touch on raw or sensitive areas in oneself. Jane and Sally-Anne interspersed the theory sections with meditations that enabled us to develop the practice of being present to ourselves and grounding us in the here and now, and in God. There were also some short exercises to enable us to engage with aspects of the material, one involving brightly coloured spongy practice golf balls, which you get to take home!
Understanding the impact of trauma
I found all of it very useful and informative, but the section that I found highly engaging, partly because I have studied this area in my work with trauma and congregations, was Sally-Anne’s introduction to ‘trauma logic’. This is the understanding that difficult behaviour (one’s own or others’) has a perfectly logical basis if seen in relation to developmental trauma as a child, or to specific traumas experienced later in life.
Sally-Anne deftly took us through recent developments in neurobiology that help us to see how the brain–body connection works. It explains how we get ‘triggered’ into certain responses and patterns of behaviour that our brain has developed to keep us safe and functioning in the face of potentially overwhelming feelings and fears.
First things first
A fascinating and powerful insight was that once someone is responding from a ‘triggered’ state, it’s no use trying to talk them out of this with reason and logic, until their nervous system is calmed by a warm presence and neurologically perceived sense of safety. Learning how to calm our own and others’ nervous systems when triggered is the bedrock of our ability to stay present to ourselves and to others. Being kind and curious about what may be going on for us or others opens up a greater sense of compassion, which communicates at a level beyond words and shifts the interaction into a different space.
The Working With Difficult People course was developed and is delivered by Revd Prebendary Dr Jane Tillier, Bishop’s Adviser for Pastoral Care and Wellbeing in the Diocese of Lichfield, and psychotherapist Sally-Anne Bubbers, who specialises in trauma and stress.
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